Once upon the time--1969, to be exact--The Valley of Gwangi (see poster, left) was made. Based on a story concept by stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien (King Kong), and employing the stop-motion effects of Ray Harryhausen (former apprentice to O'Brien), it was and is the greatest cowboy-dinosaur movie ever made.
In the summer of 1970, a pencil-necked geek named Matt (see photo, right) discovered Gwangi quite by accident when it was the opening "B-movie" at his local theater with When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Matt was all of seven, and he hooted and hollered and cheered throughout the film.
He was all alone that evening ... well, sort of all alone.
That night after crawling into bed, seven-year-old Matt lay awake for hours, replaying scenes from The Valley of the Gwangi in his head. He knew every dinosaur by heart, having studied them extensively in a fossil book he had received the previous Christmas, and he story-boarded the scenes on his ceiling, softly humming Jerome Moross's thrilling score and dreaming of the day when he could see the film again.
That day came about a year later, in the fall of 1971, when The Valley of Gwangi popped up one Friday night on the CBS Late Movie. Matt was now eight years old, and he did extra chores around the house just so his parents would let him stay up late to watch it.
he watched The Valley of Gwangi alone. In hindsight, this was the only way he ever watched it. That previous April in the theater, he had Shane, of course, but he may as well have been alone there too, so disinterested and going-through-the-motions was his brother.
In the ensuing years, Matt saw The Valley of Gwangi three more times on the CBS Late Movie. One time, his father stayed up to watch with him, but Dad expressed about as much interest as Shane had, so Matt's enthusiasm remained self-contained, unshared with anyone. Nevertheless, he took his tiny cassette recorder and made an audio recording of the dinosaur scenes, which he listened to ad nauseum in his room at night.
Another time was special. The CBS Late Movie came on at 10:30 p.m., just as it did every Friday night, and Gwangi was the main feature, but at midnight, after the dinosaurs had run their course, the local CBS affiliate broadcast Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, another Ray Harryhausen classic from 1956.
Matt watched both films alone. He was always alone. There was simply no one with whom to share these movies, no one who loved them as much as he did.
The Valley of Gwangi was not one of them.
It would be years before this amazing film, virtually forgotten by all by the most obsessive Harryhausen aficionados, would be made available on video. It had, in fact, become something of a Holy Grail for many stop-motion fans.
Matt got to watch film exactly one time in the 1980s, when it was on TBS, broken up by commercials as it had been on CBS all those years ago. As with CBS, much of Gwangi had been trimmed to fit a 96-minute film plus commercial breaks into a 90-minute time slot.
In 1991, when Matt was in grad school at Kansas State, he discovered that the film was going to play Cinemax one time in the month of March. It was coming on at 1:00 a.m., and although Matt could easily program his VCR, he decided instead to stay up late and watch it.
It was a Tuesday night. Matt was 28, and was just settling down in his sweats with a bowl of popcorn when there was a knock on his apartment door. It was 12:45 in the morning. Two of his drinking buddies and three girls they had met at the bars were standing there on his stoop, ready to party. Matt invited them in and asked if they wanted to sit and watch The Valley of Gwangi with him. Neither of his buddies were interested in a G-rated cowboy-vs-dinosaur fantasy with stop-motion dinosaurs.
The girls weren't that interested either.
Matt popped a tape in his VCR to record the movie. He watched it again later. Alone.
On New Year's Night 2014, Matt was settling into bed watching the last quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, where the UCF Golden Knights were stunning the 17-point favorite Baylor Bears. His wife was asleep beside him, and the volume was low so as not to disturb her, but when the game broke for a commercial, Matt switched over to Turner Classic Movies to see what late-night flick was playing.
To his shock and surprise, TCM host Robert Osborne was just introducing--you guessed it--The Valley of Gwangi.
At once, Matt jumped out of bed and dashed to the living room, so he could watch the film without the risk of his wife waking up. He grabbed his iPhone, opened his Twitter account, and checked to see if #TCMParty was trending (#TCMParty is the hashtag used while watching a film on TCM, to make the viewing a communal experience with other fans watching the same film).
Matt typed in the following Tweet:
A good friend of Matt's, African-American poet and playwright Frank Jenkins, once wrote a poem entitled "I've Got To Find My People." After charting the journey of an black male trying to find his place in the world, the poem ends with the haunting epithet:
I've got to find my people
to find myself
to find my people
Storyteller Matt found his people. They were at points all over the world, but for 96 minutes, they shared a common passion.
That night, when 50-year-old Matt went to bed, he lay awake for hours, replaying scenes from The Valley of the Gwangi in his head. He story-boarded the scenes on his ceiling, softly humming Jerome Moross's thrilling score and dreaming of the day when he could see the film again.
It is true, our society often abuses and overuses social media. But some nights, like that night, social media is awesome.
Here are some highlights: